The Good News and Bad News About the Warriors and NBA National TV Flex Scheduling
We've spent a lot of time talking about the hazards of load management as far as the NBA's national TV partners are concerned, and another issue that will unfortunately rear its head this season is the injury bug. After the reliable ratings draw Warriors had already lost Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry went down with a wrist injury. Even if doesn't keep him out all season, it will in all likelihood keep him out long enough where Golden State games no longer have playoff stakes in their myriad appearances on ESPN (11 more times), ABC (5 more times), and TNT (11 more times).
Somewhat like the NFL, the NBA does indeed have flex scheduling to optimize its nationally televised games. The process is a little byzantine and hasn't really been formally explained anywhere. After reaching out to some people In The Know, here is how it works and the caveats:
*** ESPN, ABC, and TNT all have the ability to flex and they are in constant contact with the NBA throughout the season about games scheduled near and far down the road. Generally, the networks and league agree to flex games in and out at least two weeks in advance so everything can logistically be handled from the perspective of broadcaster travel, production trucks, and tip-off times for fans. However, there are also exceptions made in the last week of the season when playoff seedings are at stake, or in rare occasions like when the Heat and Warriors have gone on torrid runs.
*** There is a maximum amount of times teams can appear on each network. The obvious marquee teams are basically at those limits already, so you can't really just solve the Warriors issue by quadrupling down on LeBron and the Lakers. ABC games require extra care because they have exclusivity, and so swapping a game in affects the regional broadcasters.
*** Late-night West Coast starts present some issues. For example, Warriors-Jazz on December 13th at 10:30 pm ET doesn't sound all that exciting right now. The only other game on the West Coast that night is Knicks-Kings, which is a game even less people would care about. Maybe in rare circumstances you could move a Central time zone game like Bucks-Grizzlies to 9:30 pm local time. Nevertheless, while that game features reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and rising star Ja Morant, would it give such an advantage in ratings that it's worth keeping fans out past midnight? Probably not.
*** A lot of the Warriors' national TV games are against strong opponents. The networks aren't going to swap out draws like the Celtics, Lakers, Clippers, Sixers, or Rockets. Same goes for the Pelicans if Zion Williamson has any shot at being on the court. They probably don't want to lose teams like the Bucks, Mavs, Blazers either. When you whittle it down, you do find some games like March 18th vs. the Pacers while the Sixers are playing the Raptors that seem like a natural swap.
So how many of the Warriors' 27 remaining games on true national TV -- I'm not counting NBATV in this exercise, though the Warriors have plenty of games left on there too -- will be swapped out? Probably not all that many. Between the time zone constraints, network maximums, strong opponents, and the fact that Steph Curry and/or Klay Thompson could be playing and thus add some intrigue late in the season, my estimate is somewhere around 20 of them will stay right where they are.